While school choice has sparked a divisive debate in Arizona, panelists at the Arizona Capitol Times Morning Scoop on the topic Tuesday seemed to find common ground on one point: The state system for school funding could be due for a reboot.
Stacey Morley, government affairs director at Stand for Children, said the funding formula was not created with today’s problems in mind, leaving the state to add things to a system that was never designed to handle those needs. That has led to a system that is not equitable in Morley’s view.
She pointed to the “unintended consequences of choice,” namely that when district schools lose students to charter or private schools, they also lose funding with no certain way to make up the gap in their budgets.
School districts, she argued, do not have the benefit of knowing they’ll definitely welcome a certain number of students, making planning ahead more difficult than it may be at a charter school that accepts a set number of students.
While the Morning Scoop debate was more tame than may have been expected, the panelists – and sometimes members of the audience – did find occasion to exchange terse words.
Buckeye Elementary School District Superintendent Kristi Sandvik said the market in Arizona is “saturated with choice,” creating inefficiencies in an outdated system, and that taxpayers deserve to know whether they’re getting a return on investment.
A for Arizona Executive Director Lisa Graham Keegan interrupted.
“The saturated market of choice created the best academic performance this state has ever seen,” Keegan said. “To say it hasn’t had an academic affect, to say that Arizona has not gone from the bottom third of academic performers to about average … that’s just dishonest.”
Keegan won some of the crowd’s approval with that remark but drew ire with what came next.
According to focus groups, she said, parents don’t even know whether their children are in district, charter or private schools.
“They know they’re in a school and one that works for their child,” she said to the disapproval of hecklers.
Despite some of the negative feedback she and her fellow pro-voucher panelist Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, received – largely from members of the audience dressed in Save Our Schools Arizona T-shirts or the group’s trademark red – Keegan said school choice is not about us versus them.
Rather, she said, it’s about everyone against the failure of students.
In that regard, Keegan said expanding school choice has achieved its goal of improving schools by introducing other options.
Lesko, sponsor of SB1431 to expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, said it’s just common sense.
“If there’s competition out there, and parents are allowed to move their child out of a district school and into a charter school or a private school and online school, [district schools are] going to up their game,” she said.
Lesko also cited 31 unnamed “empirical studies” on the effects of school choice, saying 29 showed district schools do improve when they face competition; the other two, she said, demonstrated no change either way.
Sandvik didn’t see the same success, even in her own district, describing her view of Arizona’s educational future as “catastrophic” if changes are not made.
Instead of helping families, Sandvik said the system has pit parents against each other.
Parents with gifted children are asking for the same money parents of students with disabilities plead for, and in the end, she said no one wins.
As for Sandvik’s wish for more fiscal transparency from charter schools, the panelists were in agreement that such a thing could only be a positive. But how it materializes is yet to be seen.
According to a Grand Canyon Institute report released Sunday, 77 percent of Arizona’s charter schools use taxpayer dollars on related-party transactions, such as contracting services from a member of the charter’s board and hiring teachers from an employment service owned by a charter holder’s relative.
Lesko declined to comment on specifics in the report and possible solutions, but said she believes in transparency and accountability across the board in education.
To meet that need, she said she added fiscal and academic accountability measures to SB 1431, including a required ESA open checkbook on expenditures and an ESA review counsel.
“Unfortunately, all of those new accountability and transparencies have been put on hold because of the referendum, and so we’ll see what happens,” Lesko said, jabbing back at the hecklers who were giving her what she called “the evil eye” throughout the morning.t